What is Art Therapy? By: Nikki Witt, MA AT

Jan 24, 2014 by Nikki Witt

 “It is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” – D.W. Winnicott

The field of art therapy, while a recognized form of treatment, is still somewhat of a mystery to many people. Therapists who use art with their clients know that it is an effective form of intervention, but most do not know why it works, and what its benefits are as a form of therapy and evaluation. This blog will provide a definition of art therapy, an explanation of the effectiveness of art therapy, and its purpose in psychotherapeutic treatment.

What is art therapy and how does it work?  Art therapy is a relatively new field, with several layers and aspects, with its roots stemming from many different areas. Elinor Ulman, a pioneer of art therapy, wrote about how difficult it is to define art therapy. She explained it as being both art and therapy.  Simply defining therapy as a means to change personality and cope with stressors in a manner in which is sustaining; and art as a way to explore the self and the world, developing a connection between the two. Some professionals define it as “art psychotherapy”, where therapy is the primary contributor and art is adjunct to it, helping individuals to verbalize thoughts and feelings, beliefs, problems, and worldviews through both image making and verbal exchange with the therapist. Others define it as “art as therapy”, where the creative process involved in art making is the primary contributor. In actuality, both definitions contribute to the effectiveness of art therapy, and most art therapists utilize both aspects in their practice. Essentially, art therapy is based on the idea that the creative process of art making is healing and life enhancing and is a form of nonverbal communication of thoughts and feelings.

In order for art making to be called art therapy, it must utilize both art and therapy, and led by a clinician trained in both. Filling leisure time with art activities, where the primary goal is fun and learning, may be therapeutic, but it is not art therapy. The primary purpose of the art activity must be therapy, usually including assessment, as well as treatment. The therapist must know art materials and how they can aid in helping the person grow and develop. More about the training requirements for art therapists will follow.

Art activities are used in psychotherapy and counseling because it serves as another form of communication, as well as allowing people of all ages to explore, express and process emotions, reduce anxiety, manage behaviors, release frustrations, develop problem solving and social skills, increase self-esteem, and foster self-awareness. Art therapists assess the patient’s creative process, response, and final product to determine an individual’s strengths, weaknesses, cognitive and physical development, interests, concerns, conflicts, and personality.

Art therapy is a unique type of therapy as it ends with a tangible object to show for the work accomplished. The therapist and patient can see progress in the artwork, which increases confidence and determination for positive change. Patient’s feelings and experiences are transformed into concrete and tangible images, allowing both the patient and therapist to obtain a fresh view of problems, conflicts, potentials and directions. Art making can communicate and uncover problems quickly, expediting interventions and assessments, thus allowing for more focused and brief therapy.

Art therapy permits expression of feelings and thoughts in a way that is often less-threatening than strictly verbal means, it is a way to visually communicate thoughts and feelings that do not have words, or are too painful to put into words.  There is a level of comfort in creative expression that provides a sense of safety sometimes not found through traditional therapy alone.

Through neuroscience technology and research, we are discovering and understanding more about the benefits and effectiveness of art making. Research suggests that art expression utilizes the mind and body in ways that enhances treatment and evaluation. For example, art making taps into sensory and implicit memory, as well as activates the body’s relaxation response, which provides greater results in treating posttraumatic stress.

Who can benefit from art therapy?  Art therapy is a modality that can help individuals of all ages, despite artistic ability, create meaning and achieve insight, find relief from overwhelming emotions or trauma, resolve conflict and problems, enrich daily life, and achieve an increased sense of well-being. Art therapy is practiced in a wide variety of settings with children, adolescents, adults, families and groups; treating and providing palliative care for mental and physical illness and disability, as well as therapy and support for trauma, grief and loss, learning disabilities, dementia, and addiction. It is now a commonplace form of intervention wherever psychotherapy is used as treatment.

Who are Art Therapists?  Art therapists have a master’s degree in psychotherapy with an art therapy certification. They follow the educational, professional and ethical standards established by the American Art Therapy Association (  Typically, art therapists also hold a license, either licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) or licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT). Art therapists require the knowledge of visual art, the creative process, human development, psychological, and counseling theories and techniques. Art therapists utilize certain tools and techniques, along with art media (drawing, painting, sculpture and other art forms) to help patients overcome symptoms, find release from mental illness, as well as discover and nurture a sense of well-being.


Choi, W., Cohen-Liebman, M., Councill, T., Thayer Cox, C., Gabriels, R., Gantt, L.,…Wilson, M. (2003). Handbook of art therapy. C .A. Malchiodi (Ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Rubin, J. A. (1999). Art therapy: An introduction. Philadelphia, PA: Brunner/Mazel.

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